I had ridden my motorcycle from work to my dentist appointment, and so I was dressed in my black leather jacket. My jacket is decorated with a few pins and patches; mementos from my past that still have meaning to me now, though perhaps not the same meaning as when I first collected them. On the epaulets are my corporal stripes from when I was in the Army. Pinned to the zippered flap that folds outward on the front of my jacket is an Army Engineer badge. Scrawled across the kidney belt, now fading from view, is the word “Nihilism.” There are other things, like a Polish eagle pin and the laces from an old pair of boots that serve to hold the side panels of the jacket together. This is a piece of clothing that by slow aggregation has collected together hints and clues pointing to many of the things I have done and been since I was in my early 20’s. This jacket is unique to me. It is a faded and worn garment that bears traces and marks from 25 years of life.
There was one day, as I walked through the mailroom on my way to my office, that a co-worker stopped me and asked, “Is your jacket European?” I didn’t quite understand her question. “Did you get it from some place in Europe?” she repeated. “No,” I responded. “I’ve had this since I was in my 20’s. It’s an American-made jacket.” “Well it looks very stylish! I thought that maybe you ordered it from somewhere in Europe.” That seemed weird to me, but then someone else gave me a thumbs-up and complimented me on my “cool retro jacket.” I laughed to myself and smiled at my admirer. This is no “retro jacket.” It’s the jacket I’ve had for more than half of my life. I’ve been wearing this jacket longer than I’ve owned my present motorcycle, or my condo, or my pet cat, or my dog. I don’t think of it as a retro fashion statement any more than I think of myself as an old man. Maybe that’s a mistake, but it’s just not the way I think of it or myself. I’m comfortable in this jacket precisely because it has been a part of my life for so long.
So, I had a dentist appointment and I arrived wearing my motorcycle jacket. As I entered the dentist’s office, I noted that there was one other person sitting in the waiting room. After checking in with the receptionist at the front desk, I took a seat next to this person. He was an older black man wearing a baseball cap, and as I plopped down, I noticed that he was scrutinizing my jacket. I nodded and said, “Hello.” He did the same.
“Were you in the service?” the man asked. He spoke in a calm, confident manner. The way he said the word “service” led me to believe that he had been in the military himself, and that he was from a generation that considered military duty as something compulsory and yet character building. Ever since I was a kid I have liked the comportment of this type of person. People of this sort don’t seem to feel as if they have anything to prove, and they give the impression of being unsurprised by anything and comfortable with anyone. Perhaps this is the result of traveling, being stationed overseas and being exposed to foreign cultures. In any case, while many younger veterans can sometimes come across as aggressive, or broken, or traumatized, or inauthentically caring, this kind of older veteran appears to have settled into his life, wearing his experiences with grace and ease.
“I was in the Army reserves,” I answered. He continued to look at me, friendly and calm. Even though on the surface we looked like very different sorts of people, I felt as if there might be a deeper point of contact between us.
“I was in the Marines,” he said. “What job did you do in the Army?”
“I was a Combat Engineer. 12 Bravo it was called at the time,” I responded.
“Well I’ll be. That was my job in the Marines! Did you like it?”
I smiled and shook my head a bit. There was something that we shared in common. “Well, it wasn’t the life for me. I’ve always had a cautious streak, so I joined the reserves instead of going active duty to see how I would adapt to military life. It turns out that I wasn’t the best fit with the Army. It’s not that I would take it back; I mean there were plenty of interesting experiences. It’s just that I knew pretty quickly it wasn’t something I wanted to make a career out of. What about you? Did you like your time in the Marines?”
“Oh yes! I loved it. Now mind you, I never saw combat, but we got to travel all over the world. We went to Korea and Vietnam and Japan. It was boring sometimes, but I really did like seeing other parts of the world and meeting different sorts of people. The one place that I wanted to go that we never made it to was Germany. I would have liked to have seen Germany, but that never happened.”
“What sort of things did you do overseas?”
“Mostly clearing landmines. That was our duty in Vietnam. It was after the war, so there were a lot of mines left over. Too much of what we did was just practice putting up and taking down bridges, though. We did a lot of practice with skills that never really got put to use.”
“So how long were you in the service?” I asked.
“I was in for four years. How long were you in for?”
“Eight years total; six as an active reservist and two as an inactive reservist. That was the standard deal when I joined.”
He nodded. “When I got out I came back to the area here and worked on a county road crew. I enjoyed that as well.”
I chuckled a bit and nodded my head in response. Here was another thing we had in common. “Really?! I worked on a county road crew here too. We maintained the trees along the roads. Now that was a job that I really did like. It was sort of like the military in that you got to work outdoors with a good group of guys. It’s funny, I’m remembering now that there was this little town out by the coast, and every time we went out there, the locals would get angry and yell at us. They just didn’t like the idea of any sort of government intrusion, even though we were trying to make their roads safe to drive!”
The man laughed. “I know the place that you’re talking about. Bolinas! Every time our crew would go out there to maintain the signs, the locals would tear them down. They just did not want anyone to do anything in their town! They didn’t want anyone to even know that they were there. I remember one time I went out there to put up a road sign. I got turned around and had to double back past the work sight afterwards. It couldn’t have been more than 10 minutes that went by, and the sign was already gone! They really didn’t like outsiders! From what I understand, they still don’t.”
We both laughed and shook our heads.
“So, you were a combat engineer, you worked on the county road crew; is there anything else that we share in common?” I joked and held out my hand. “My name is John, by the way.”
The man looked at me with raised eyebrows. “John?” he repeated.
“Yes,” I said.
“My name is John as well! What a small world,” he chuckled.
At that point I was called in by the hygienist for my cleaning.
“It was a pleasure talking with you John,” I said as I got up and moved toward the door.
“You too,” the man replied.
I settled into the dentist chair and prepared myself for a cleaning. The cliche “it’s a small world” echoed through my head. I reflected on how the corporal stripes on my comfortable, old leather jacket had just broken the ice between a total stranger and myself. If I had not been wearing it this day, I probably would have said nothing more than “hello” to the man sitting next to me in the waiting room, never realizing that we shared a name and common details in our personal biographies.
This jacket appears to be different things to different people, and it breaks the ice in different ways. It is a motorcycle jacket, and so I often find myself talking with fellow motorcyclists. It is also a punk rock symbol, and so it is a conversation starter for those who are into punk. It is decorated with military badges, which, as I’ve here detailed, can open discussion with folks who have served in the armed forces. My leather jacket is all of these things; and so am I. This is a piece of clothing that I have had for so long that it is molded to my being.